Let’s get one thing clear from the start—I would make a terrible commercial truck driver. I’m not very good at remembering driving directions, I barely have the attention span to operate my web browser, and my spatial awareness is maxed out whenever I need to do a three-point turn in our six-year-old family SUV, never mind adding a hinged trailer to the rear bumper.
So when that same SUV was in the shop last month to repair a dented fender (I told you I was a barely competent driver), I was thrilled when our rental car turned out to be a 2021-model-year crossover sedan with all the latest bells and whistles. This thing was loaded with features like a full-color display screen for the backup camera, an overlay on that screen that predicted where your car was headed as you turned the wheel, and a setting that turns down the radio volume when you shift the transmission into reverse.
In theory, those high-tech options should have been just the thing for correcting my weaknesses behind the wheel. But here’s what happened instead: The automation made me lazy.
I was quickly spoiled by advanced driver-assistance systems like blind-spot collision warning (BCW), lane-keeping assist (LKA), and rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist (RCCA). After I got over being annoyed at having to learn all those new acronyms, I reverted to bad habits like singing along with the stereo while playing the drums on the steering wheel. Meanwhile, I could pay only half a mind to driving and let the system correct me when needed (did I mention there was also a forward collision-avoidance system (FCA)?).
While mulling over my failure to adapt to those new technologies like a responsible adult, I came across the ideal alibi—a study from the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety showing that drivers of new vehicles outfitted with driver-assistance technology understand its capabilities far better after attending a hands-on training session than those who take a “learn as you go” approach.
The study found that even after six months of driving, the “learn as you go” drivers still had gaps in their understanding of the systems compared with the trained drivers. And some of those gaps were pretty big. For instance, the research found that a number of those drivers falsely believed that adaptive cruise control (ACC), one of the most prevalent driver-assist systems found in new vehicles, could react to stationary objects in their lane, provide steering input to keep the vehicle in its lane, and operate in all weather conditions.
“Our research finds that drivers who attempt the ‘self-taught’ approach to an advanced driver-assistance system might not fully master its entire capabilities,” David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in a release. “In contrast, drivers who have adequate training are able to effectively use the vehicle technology.”
Even worse, the AAA researchers noted the “disturbing emergence of a small, overconfident group of drivers who falsely believed their time behind the wheel gave them expertise with these systems.” I feel these people truly understand me!
As a solution, AAA recommends that researchers, automakers, and government agencies work together to better understand driver performance, behavior, and interactions in vehicles with advanced technologies.
“This research suggests that today’s sophisticated vehicle technology requires more than trial-and-error learning to master it,” Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research, said in the release. “You can’t fake it ’til you make it at highway speeds. New car owners must receive training that is safe, effective, and enjoyable before they hit the road.”
Thanks to this exculpatory evidence, I now feel slightly less shame about being outed as a business and technology editor who is barely capable of using the very systems he covers for this magazine. But more important, I have a newfound respect for the professional truck drivers who steer their tractor-trailers every day along highways clogged with citizen commuters who are barely on speaking terms with the state-of-the-art technology under their own hoods.